Ellis Riles - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Jamaica
Choosing my project and destination
It was coming to the end of my second year university term in Birmingham, England. One day I sat staring out of the window watching the rain trickle down, whilst slowing starting to feel the pressure of exam stress ease off my shoulders, knowing in a weeks' time all the revising would be over and the summer vacation was just around the corner. As I flitted between revision notes and social media, I began to wonder about what I would do with all my free time when the lecture halls were closed and my friends had packed-up and gone their separate ways for the next three months?
I checked my inbox. My friend Maria had just sent over a website link for a bursary scheme my university was offering. It was for students who wanted to undertake a summer work/volunteer placement. My friend told me she had just applied and although she knew there would be many applicants, she thought I should give it a go and apply. All I had to do was come up with a project that my university thought would enhance my personal development and widen my career prospects. I had to then write this into an online application and if successful, I would be shortlisted to do a presentation and interview that would grant me the opportunity to be funded to complete my project.
I went home that night and thought long and hard; I knew that the project I would do, needed to be focused around education and children as that was my planned career route once I graduate. The questions built up: where would I do it, could I prepare a good presentation to make me stand out from the crowd and secure the funding I needed? It was then that Damian Marley's 'Welcome to Jamrock' came flowing through my headphones and I just knew IT HAD TO BE JAMAICA!
For as long as I can remember I have dreamed of visiting the land of wood and water, and this was my chance to just go for it. Now I had to present my idea of working as a teaching volunteer in Jamaica, and combining it with the research I was already undertaking with teenagers in England. I went back to the library the next day and didn't leave until I believed what I had just written would get me on a flight to Kingston in two months’ time... and it did!
Arriving in Jamaica
"Please fasten your seat belts, we are now preparing to land". My stomach was filled with butterflies. I eagerly peered out the window to get the first glance of my new home for the next three weeks. All I could see was blue. I thought we were landing in the sea for a minute and then green hills began to roll into view as we lowered further and further down to land. After passing smoothly and quickly through immigration, I walked to the Arrival doors of Kingston’s airport and as they slid open the heat just hit me! I was greeted by my extremely smiley driver Andrew who put my bags into the car, started the engine and switched up the reggae.
We whizzed onto the highway and began the journey out of Kingston with Andrew singing for nearly the whole first hour. As we sped through the city and out into the country, my head turned from one side to the other, not knowing what to look at next as I tried to take in the curves of the mountains, the men playing dominoes outside the colorful bars or the lush greenery that surrounded the twists and turns of the country rivers. My face felt a glow from the sunshine straight away. (And I'm pleased to say that the glow Jamaica gave me still shines on me each and every day now- its infectious!)
Living with my host family
I can genuinely say that the three weeks that followed were the most exciting, eye-opening and heart-warming weeks of my life so far. Every day single day I woke up at 6:00am and didn't sleep until around midnight because I just wanted to fill my days with the beauty of all that is Jamaica. When I first arrived there were many things I had apprehensions about. How would the family be that I lived with? Would I be safe? How would I get around on my own? Would the project be something I could handle? But after about the first three days, I settled into the wonderfully relaxed and cheerful pace of life that comes with this special island nation. The family I stayed with instantly made me feel welcome as almost all Jamaicans do. Due to my busy mornings filled with teaching, my research for the project in the afternoon and night and weekends spent exploring the island with the rest of the volunteers who had come from America, Australia and everywhere in between. I didn't get to spend as much time as I had hoped with my host family because of my busy schedule, but every night they asked me how my day had been and filled me up with a huge, tasty Jamaican dinner.
My Teaching placement
My first few days of the project were definitely a challenge. I was placed on the Community Literacy Programme because schools had just closed for summer. This meant I was working with one teenage student at the local church in a small country community called New Green. Creating my own activities, marking work and developing a good rapport with a 14 year old boy who had such a different experience of the world to me was daunting. However, after a couple of days I found something he was really passionate about, which was also such a big part of my culture: the English Premier league! Reggae music is something I am really passionate about too, and this was such a big part of his culture so we struck up a great relationship with these shared interests. This made my morning teaching flow easily until before I knew it, we had completed the three week project and he told me he felt he had gained a lot from my support in reading and writing, which was a lovely thing for me to hear!
Initially I was working with the one student, but I was eager to meet many more people and get as much experience as possible. After speaking with my project supervisor, I realized it was 'No problem man' and she set up for me to visit the Sports Camp down the road in New Green after my teaching placement so I could conduct my research for the university project. The community made me feel welcome and I am still in touch regularly with many of them via social media - something I treasure as it still keeps my connection with Jamaica going strong!
Travelling around Jamaica
Besides this fantastic experience on the project in Mandeville, every weekend I met up with the other volunteers and adventured all over the island visiting waterfalls, beaches, bars, museums and I even got the chance to go to Reggae Sumfest on my final weekend on the island - ending my adventure with a bang!
Visiting Jamaica was a truly life changing experience. Just describing all the amazing things I was able to enjoy on the project just doesn't do justice to how Jamaica is. Jamaica has a wonderful feeling that you can only understand once you have been there. So go! Take your chance with open arms and feel the ‘one love’ of Jamaica for yourself!